Jobstacles: For Teens, Soft Skills Are Hard Skills

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This piece aired on Marketplace.

By Ashley Williams

Three years ago, when Christian Hernandez was 16 years old, he recorded a joke voicemail greeting. It starts off with, “Hello. Hey! Uh, can’t understand you.” It’s meant to trick the caller into thinking it’s Hernandez on the phone. Eventually, callers hear, “Ha, voicemail! You know what to do stupid.” Now, at 19, Hernandez is looking for a job, and the greeting which started off as a joke for friends is now a liability.

Teen unemployment is at 24.4%, three times the national average. With opportunities for young job seekers so scarce, it’s more important than ever that they think about all the little things that could hurt their chances, like a voicemail greeting calling potential employers “stupid.”

With only two weeks left before summer break, I visited Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., to talk with teens about summer employment. As the bell rang at 3:05, signaling the end of the school day, most teens rushed for the door, but sophomores Marina Wright and Ivan Johnson stayed behind. Both were desperate for work and say they applied everywhere. Wright got lucky, landing her first job at a youth development center. Johnson says he was close with a city parks position, but was turned down at the end of the hiring process because he wasn’t yet 16.

Early in the interview, my producer asked them if they knew what “soft skills” are. “How many words you can type per minute?,” guessed Wright. Johnson asked if soft skills had something to do with grammar. I didn’t even know what they were, but soft skills like professional etiquette and follow-through are the first things many employers say they look for in a candidate.

Wright explained that her peers get professional etiquette wrong all the time. “Their email will be inappropriate,” she said, “like big-booty-something at”

“My email is kind of inappropriate,” admitted Johnson. “It’s ipacmanjohnson@…com. My mom is like, ‘Dude, what are you doing making that email?’“ At eight years old, Johnson’s favorite game was Pac-Man, and iPhones were really popular, so he attached the “i” from iPhone to Pacman and put his last name at the end. Professionalism was the last thing on his mind when he created the email address, but now that he’s 15 and looking for a job, he basically has to rebrand himself for an unfamiliar world. “Yeah, I gotta make a new one,” said Johnson, “cause you need to grow out of it. You need to show that you can be mature and be presentable.”

When it comes to being presentable, employers say teens often miss the mark in interviews, mistaking clothes they’d wear to the club for professional attire, or going in showing off their tattoos and piercings. Career Counselor Marty Nemko recommends dressing “one notch higher than you would on the job, if you got hired.” He says if you don’t know what to wear, just call and ask.

Much of interviewing, is obvious, said Nemko. “You leave your monotone home, you go and ask questions, you lean forward, you’ve got a smile on your face. You nod.” But, he added, not everything is so simple, like finding the right balance between confident and cocky.

“As capable as any 17 or 18-year-old is, there really are a few things one could learn,” said Nemko, “but you also don’t want to be a little wimp and sound desperate. ‘I’ll take anything, I’ll do anything.’”

Back at Skyline High School, Ivan Johnson says he would love to land an interview, but it’s also what freaks him out the most because he doesn’t know what questions employers will ask. Marina Wright worries that she’ll take too long to answer a question or stutter or mumble her words.

Nemko’s solution to both of these problems is simple preparation. One way to prepare is to go in knowing a little bit about the company. He also recommends having a couple of what he calls “PAR” stories, which detail a problem you faced, how you approached it, and the positive result.

“For example,” said Nemko, “let’s say in your school, they were doing a fundraiser to pay for the school play,” and it was your idea to have the actors perform scenes on the street. “Thats clever,” he said, “and you can say, ‘We raised 700 dollars as a result of it.’ You stated the problem, how you approached it, and the positive result.” Nemko says these kinds of stories are often very impressive to employers.

Sixteen year-old Wright says her peers are not quite living up to that ideal. Many are so afraid to talk to employers that they list their parents’ contact information instead of their own on job applications.

Hmm. Maybe soft skill number one should be: cut the cord.

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